This has been a year of lost. Four of my friends and former colleagues have died, way before their time.
A remarkable man left us last Sunday. My friend, Michael Johnson, died at his home in South Africa. I attended a memorial Tuesday evening on Zoom. I think there were 20 or more attendees, friends and family from all over the world. We all knew him at different times and it was amazing to hear everyone’s stories and how much impact Michael had in their lives.
I meet Michael in 1997. He was working for Richard Li in Hong Kong. It had been Michaels idea to buy a failed satellite, Hughes Westar, from the insurance company that underwrote it’s launch. Michael, who was at that time living in South Africa, read about the failed launch in the news paper. Somehow he imagined that it could be used to broadcast video major parts of Asia including India which had very limited access to Television at the time.
He flew soon after to Hong Kong where he meet with people Hutchison Whampoa which was controlled by Li Ka-Shing, one of the richest men in the world. I don’t know how this meeting came about but evidently Michael pitched the idea to Li Ka-Shing’s younger son, Richard Li. Richard, just 25 years old, loved the idea and together with Michael was able to assemble a group of people. Most of the money came directly from Li’s father.
They were successful in acquiring the satellite. The service was called Star TV. A year or so later, Rupert Murdoch invested $525 million for 2/3’s of the company and a in 1995 he bought the remainder for $299 million making Richard very rich on his own right. Richard used this money to start Pacific Century Group. Michael took some time off to live with his family in Italy. Richard was subject to a non compete in the Television business. Richard became interested in the Internet. I was introduced to him around 1996 by an other amazing man, John Evans of NewCorp. I helped Richard learn about the internet as a favor to John including advising him not to buy Web TV (which Microsoft ended up doing).
One day, Richard calls me to say that he has an idea for something that might make sense for both Intel and his company. He asked me to talk with Michael Johnson and George Chan which I did via a video conference as they were in Hong Kong. Out of that, came a joint venture between Intel and Pacific Century Cyber Works (one of Richard’s companies) to use satellite to remote locations in China and provide a form of Internet. I go into this in my book, The Flight of Wild Duck, which will hopefully be published in September of 2021.
Michael and his wife plus George Chan came to live in Silicon Valley to work with a bunch of Intel people to create the new service. Because of the growth of the consumer Internet, the strategy changed. Michael proposed a new service that would combine television and the internet which would be offered in Hong Kong and Europe. The service was called now.com. Intel, converted its shares in the joint venture into shares in Pacific Cyberworks which was no a public company. Michael moved to London where he created a studio and hired a lot of people. By this time, I was no longer at Intel. In fact, I was on the board of Richard’s company. The potential of now.com fueled the stock price of PCCW which became one of the most valuable internet companies in the world. PCCW wisely decided to utilize it high valuation to buy a real asset, the Hong Kong Telephone company.
In 1999, I was on the board of both PCCW and CMGI, one of the leading American internet companies. I introduced the two CEO’s and at my recommendation it was decided to set up a partnership to do early stage investments in Asia. Michael was involved in the negotiations.
The world witnessed the melt down of internet company valuation in 2000. now.com was advertising based and the adds dried up. PCCW reluctantly downsized now.com. The venture with CMGI was also terminate. Michael, left the company and moved back to South Africa. He and I communicated a few times over the years.
While writing my book, which chronicles my journey in the world of high tech, I had the opportunity to work closely with many renowned business leaders but I also worked with some very creative business minds. Michael was right up there. Not only was he creative and brilliant, he was driven to make his ideas actually happen. I call people like this, Activist Strategies. It is a term I sometimes use for myself. Michael was right up there. He could see things that other could not see and he could make them happen. He was a generous and caring man but also complex and could leave chaos in his path. I will always be grateful for the times I spent with this man.